Mar 172014
 

rockonIndependent musicians are often technological trailblazers. From their embrace of social media, to their march toward different ways of engaging fans and selling their music, a lot of indie bands have been on the cutting edge of the intersection of technology and commerce.

So I like to keep an eye on what they’re doing. This post caught my attention last week, and although it’s written specifically for indie bands, I think it has a lot of great lessons for nonprofits as they try to navigate high-tech waters and engage their donors — particularly the next generation of donors.

So here are my suggestions for nonprofits who want to make the leap to nonprofit rock star:

Rethink the Way You Build Your Donor Base

This isn’t going to happen overnight, but a lot of organizations are already starting to look at how they’re acquiring donors and how they can do it better. Direct mail is still a viable way to go, and the Web is certainly upping its numbers ever year. But what else could you do?

  • Deliver quality content. Too many organizations send out email blasts because they’re on the schedule, not because they have something important, interesting and actionable to say. Send emails your recipients want to open. Try surveys or petitions to get them involved. Link to articles you found interesting. Send a video greeting from your ED or a celebrity supporter. And please, resist the urge to bombard them with asks for money.
  • Be social on your social media. Engage with your followers. Start conversations, send good wishes, share cool information or funny videos. Don’t be so scripted and regulated that you sound like an institution — let your organization’s unique charm and personality shine through.
  • Give your donors the Thing they want. Why do people give to your organization? What do they hope to accomplish? Why YOU? Deliver that. Tell stories, stream video, thank them. Make them feel like a vital part of your work.

Find New Revenue Streams

This isn’t just for indie bands. Nonprofits need to get creative with their fundraising if they want to raise more money. And today, there are as many ways to do that as there are organizations.

Of course, there are the tried and true ways to expand your revenue stream. If you’re not already maintaining a Sustainer program, encouraging Planned Giving, and working on upgrading current members to higher giving levels, well…get on that!

But consider these other ideas, too.

  • Crowdfunding for specific campaigns, or for events like birthdays, weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs and anniversaries.
  • A “store” that sells itemized portions of your work. $25 to feed a puppy for a month. $100 to save five acres of rainforest. You get the idea.
  • If your ED or board members travel, consider asking them to host members-only house parties or other events in the cities they visit. It’s a great opportunity for some face-to-face fundraising, and it makes your donors feel valued.

Stop Believing in the Magic Bullet

There is no magic bullet. There is no one fundraising solution that will work for now and for always. You’re going to have to continually reinvent your fundraising as new tools become available and as donors become more sophisticated. That doesn’t mean throwing out the tools that got you where you are today, though.

You need to have a whole catalog of songs, oldies and new releases, to play for your donors if you want to be a nonprofit rock star.

Feb 102014
 

The other day, I spied an interesting conversation on Twitter about author branding. And while the conversation revolved around those who write books for a living, I think many of the ideas apply to nonprofit organizations as well.

Don't get fooled by the fancy icing…it's the cake underneath that counts.

Don’t get fooled by the fancy icing…it’s the cake underneath that counts.

Here’s the tweet that started it from author Chuck WendigReferring to your “brand” is another way of saying “here’s the carefully constructed, safe, corporate lie I need you to believe about me.”

One of the things I love about writing for nonprofits is that, when I get it right, it can take all those meetings and reports and outreach that you do each and every day and make it all personal. The donors reading your direct mail — or, really, any marketing or fundraising copy you write — should be able to feel the conviction, passion and tireless effort behind what you do and get a sense of the personality behind your organization…not the brand.

So here’s my PSA for the day: Stop talking about branding!

It’s boring. It’s obnoxious. And your donors don’t care.

Instead, talk about who you are — your identity.

Your brand is an image. It’s helpful when you want people to recognize your organization at a glance. It’s great shorthand for marketing. But it’s not who you are.

Your identity is the soul and vision of your organization, what you hope to achieve, now and into the future. What does your organization care about? Why do you care? Why is it so important? What will be better in the world because you’re working on this issue?

That’s what your donors care about. Branding is just the fancy icing your marketing and communications team puts on the delicious cake that is your organization.

Don’t let the marcomm team tell you “That issue isn’t part of your brand.” That gets you stuck in a rut, and there’s no better way to stop caring about what you do than to make it so rote and routine that it ceases to matter — to you or to anyone else.

If you’re working on it, and you care about it and it will make the world better, it’s part of YOU.

Are you a scrappy band of rabble-rousers? Or a firmly established group making changes from the inside? You may be tempted to straddle the line or try to be all things to your donors, but if you want your identity to be authentic — and you do — you have to make a choice about who you are as an organization. And then stick to it in all your copy.

As Chuck Wendig said a bit later in the conversation, “Just be the best version of yourself. Let everyone else worry and talk about your brand.”

 

Jan 202014
 

highquality_pictures_of_beautiful_red_carpet_07_170445A lot of organizations I’ve worked with are fortunate to have celebrity supporters and allies, so I’ve spent my fair share of time discussing how best to leverage that kind of high-profile support. It’s not always clear or easy to take advantage of a big name on your donor roll, so I wanted to share some of my thoughts.

First, a “celebrity” isn’t just a famous actor or musician. It can be anyone related to your specific community who has name recognition and credibility. For a health-related nonprofit, that might be a super-star physician, for a science advocacy group, a former astronaut or Nobel Prize-winner. For fundraising purposes, a “celebrity” is anyone your supporters will recognize and relate to.

So, you’ve noticed a prominent person has started giving to your organization. Or you’ve got a famous board member. Or a celebrity tweeted their admiration for your mission to their 600,000 followers. How can you use their support to generate even more love for your cause?

Five Ways to Use Your Celebrity Supporters

  • Ask them to be the Chair (or Honorary Chair) of a specific Membership group, probably a high-dollar giving group. This can involve anything from simply signing fundraising materials directed at the group, to taking a more active role, depending on their interests, time and level of commitment.
  • Ask them to sign a Prospecting Letter or a Lift Letter in your Acquisition package. NRDC and Friends of the Earth both use celebrity signers — actors known for their environmental passions — in their acquisition packages to great success.
  • Ask them to make a video expressing why they support your organization and asking others to do the same. You can post this on the Web or send it in your e-mail newsletter as an extra endorsement for what you do.
  • Ask them to host (even in an honorary capacity) a major special event. A good name will draw more people to your event, and their participation can lend a “stamp of approval” that inspires others to give.
  • Present them with an award at a major special event. An alternative to asking them to host, this technique can also up attendance at your event. And it could be a first step to a more fruitful relationship with that celebrity, ensuring they help you more in the future.

There are, of course, some sticky issues with using celebrity supporters to assist in your fundraising. If your celebrity becomes embroiled in a scandal, for example, your association with them could hurt your organization more than help. Alternatively, if their notoriety doesn’t add credibility to your cause with your donors, then it might not be the best fit. And obviously, you should always treat these supporters with respect and gratitude. Don’t push them to do more than they’re comfortable doing, and don’t take them for granted.

But if you have a loyal celebrity supporter or two who is willing to use their acclaim to call attention to your cause, and you target that attention in one of the ways listed above, you can give your fundraising a boost.

Jan 132014
 

People don’t remember me.

That's me, though I have shorter hair now.

That’s me, though I have shorter hair now.

It sounds like an insecurity complex, but I swear that it’s true. One example (of many): the wife of a former colleague of my husband’s spent two evenings sitting across from me at a restaurant, conversed with me at an office party and even invited me to her wedding. My husband and I later attended a party at her home, and when I saw her I walked right up and said, “Thanks so much for inviting us!”

She smiled, held out her hand and said, “Hi, I’m Tahnee. What’s your name?”

My neighbor — a really lovely woman — and I were talking the other day, and she mentioned that she suffers from the same forget-ability. It’s hard for me to understand how anyone could forget her, and I don’t think I’m flattering myself when I say that she seemed surprised that people would forget me. But it’s true. It happens more often than I’d like.

Not that I let it get to me, not too much, anyway. I really think it’s Tahnee’s loss that she can’t remember the very nice conversations we shared. But I’ll admit that her indifference made me loathe to spend any more time with her and her husband.

Now, imagine how your donor feels when you misspell her name…when you reference a gift amount he never gave…when you call, email or send mail when he expressly asked you not to…when you show that you have no idea who they are or why they gave to you in the first place.

Frankly, it’s insulting. And no one wants to spend time or money with someone who insults them.

Know your donors. Show them that you know who they are, that you understand why they give and that you share their passion for solving the problem your organization is trying to solve. Let them know that you rely on and appreciate their commitment to your cause.

Never let them feel forgettable.

How are you making your donors feel like you know who they are? How do you show them they’re valued? Share your ideas in the comment section!

Dec 232013
 

When clients and potential clients ask me to help them with their social media, I often groan (silently) and wonder what I should say.

Social-Media-IconsYour social media tells a story about your organization. Are you telling the story of an active and dynamic organization that is mobilizing and engaging supporters in the passion of their mission? Or are you telling the story of an organization that would prefer your supporter hand over their money and let you get on with your work?

Social Media is not just another leg on your marketing stool. It’s a whole different seat at the table.

The problem most non-profit organizations and for-profit companies have with social media is the social part. This isn’t old-school, get-your-message-out promotion… Creating a successful social media presence requires you to actually interact with your customers, constituents and supporters.

Which is why I cringe when nonprofits ask me to bid on writing their social media content. I write my own tweets, Facebook posts and LinkedIn updates for my consulting practice, and I really believe it’s critical that you have an organizational insider conducting your social media.

It’s easy for a consultant to come in and say something like, “You should make sure you tweet your message XX times per day.” or “Engage your supporters in conversations on Facebook.”

But an outsider will have a much harder time creating engaging social media content and building authentic shaking handsrelationships than an insider will have.

Social media is another way of telling a story — the story of how your organization functions on a daily basis. How do you treat supporters and staff? How do you view your mission? How nimble are you when news breaks or a crisis rises up? Social media is a big plate-glass window into all of these areas.

And an outside consultant — even one specializing in social media — cannot deliver that authenticity you need. A consultant will never, for example, be able to walk out of an energizing meeting and tell your donors and supporters about the excitement in the air around the office.

When you have an actual social media professional leading your SM efforts, you’ll get

  • Someone with their finger on the pulse of the organization.
  • Someone who can seamlessly integrate the rest of your marketing, communications and fundraising plan into your social media.
  • Someone who can explain social media to those in your organization who might not understand what it can do…and what it can’t.
  • Someone who can be the “voice” of your organization on a ground level.

Better yet, make sure your social media person also has a working knowledge of donor-centered fundraising, so they can give your SM-savvy supporters a more personalized, high-touch experience.

Of course, social media isn’t (yet) a fundraising powerhouse. But like fundraising, social media is about creating and nurturing relationships. And investing in key relationships is something that all successful nonprofits are committed to.

Social media isn’t going away, and it is increasingly the way people are checking out the organizations they decide to support. What are you doing to make sure your social media plan is as engaging and authentic as it can be?

Nov 182013
 

IMG_1955This past weekend, my husband and I took our three kids up to Seattle for what we called a Tourist Weekend. Living so close to the city, we’ve often popped up there for ballgames or concerts, or just to spend a day or two in different surroundings. But we generally make it a point not to travel like tourists, preferring to ferret out the spots where locals go, the neighborhoods where people actually live.

So it had been years since we’d done any of the typical tourist things that visitors to Seattle often do.

We booked a hotel near the Seattle Center, visiting every tourist attraction we had time and energy for. I’d forgotten what a vibrant and fun city Seattle is for travelers, and how much history and knowledge there was for my kids — and me! — to soak up.

Our Tourism Experiment got me thinking, though, about how donors experience their interactions with the organizations they support.

Are they tourists, visiting the highlights on your website, giving to the flashiest campaigns?

Or are they travelers, enjoying the chance to feel like insiders in your cause, proud to support efforts that might not be popular, but are just as deserving?

And when was the last time YOU acted as a tourist to your own cause?

As we head into the last rush of year-end madness, it might be a good time to take a fresh look at how your donors experience your organization…and how you experience the organizations you support.

  • Log onto your website — or another organization’s — with a specific question and see how long it takes to find the answer.
  • Try giving a gift over the phone.
  • Ask a friend to read your newsletter and report what stands out to her — without coaching!
  • Browse through a few old blog posts and see how long it takes you to read them — and what you retain.
  • Respond to one piece of direct mail, taking time to note how easy or difficult it is to follow the instructions. Track how long it takes to receive an acknowledgement.

How does this Tourist Experiment make you feel? Excited about the cause you’re touring? Or exhausted and ready to curl up in your generic hotel room?

There is room in most organizations for both Tourists and Travelers, and the most successful organizations are adept at catering to both. And the easiest way to figure out how well you’re doing is to take a tour yourself.

Nov 112013
 

Earlier this year, my friend and colleague Amy Blake posted a fantastic musing about storytelling and her concern that it has evolved (or devolved) from a valuable tool in the fundraiser’s toolbox to a meaningless buzzword-du-jour. As I’ve  made my year-end rounds, I’ve noticed that it’s not just storytelling that’s getting the magic bullet treatment.

IMG_0062_2As I’ve mentioned before, right now is a fantastic time to be a fundraiser. There’s so much information out there. But be careful when you’re implementing all that free advice because there are nuances to using story-telling, donor-centricity, compelling emotion and all the other keys to great fundraising. And those nuances could mean the difference between a blockbuster campaign and a dud.

Being donor-centric doesn’t mean putting yourself in your donor’s shoes.

Because you can’t. You know too much, you’ve taken the red pill (The blue one? I can’t remember.), you’re in too deep. You’re already sold on the issues you care about, and it’s really hard to be objective enough to take a step back and understand how those issues appear to your donor.

Instead, try to remember the last time you tried to learn something new. How did it feel to not know anything about a subject? What key pieces of information did you need to help you understand the subject and what was required of you? What kind of encouragement did you need? What spurred you on to learn more?

Even the most devoted donors are not as well versed in your issues as you are. Being donor-centric means understanding what your donor needs — emotionally and intellectually — to spur them to give.

Storytelling is not a magic bullet.

I’ll tell you a secret: storytelling will not singlehandedly save your fundraising.

Donors do not read stories and automatically open their wallets. In fact, stories without context not only don’t help you fundraise, they actively hurt your fundraising efforts. And sometimes, even stories with context don’t work in fundraising — if they’re not the stories your donor wants to hear.

One of my clients launched a big storytelling push last year. It bombed. In reviewing what went wrong, we realized we weren’t telling the donors the stories they wanted to hear. We were telling them the stories we wanted to tell. The difference cost the organization a lot of money.

Guess what? How your donor helps your cause IS a story. Two lines of copy addressing what’s at stake IS a story. And often it’s those stories-that-don’t-look-like-stories that are the most effective in fundraising.

You need the right kind of emotion.

One of the biggest mistakes I see with organizations is confusing pathos for emotion. I feel sorry for a great many people and sad about a great many situations in this world. But I don’t — I can’t – fix them all. Emotion is no good to a fundraiser if it doesn’t move a donor to act.

Anger is a prime motivator to action. Outrage makes us jump out of our chairs and get things done. Positive emotions like hope and gratitude are also super-motivators. Pathos, sympathy and sorrow might push people to act, but they’re far more likely to  make donors feel overwhelmed or depressed.

One of my favorite things that Tom Ahern says about fundraisers is that it’s our job to “deliver joy.” There’s no joy in a sad story if it doesn’t make the donor feel like he or she can do something to alleviate the sadness.

Get that information — and go deep

DSC_0045The volume of information we have and our almost-instantaneous ability to get it can sometimes encourage a broad but shallow understanding. But our fundraising can be so much more effective if we deepen our knowledge. Track what moves your donors, continue to refine that knowledge through tests, and listen to what your donors say about your organization, your cause, and the other things that interest them.

In the end, it is your donors — not experts like me! — who will tell you how best to fundraise.

Nov 042013
 

Many, many nonprofits rely on big events for much of their fundraising. For several months of the year, their staff is engaged in seeking out sponsors, securing locations and donations of food, decorations and other necessities, publicizing the event and working tirelessly to make sure it goes off without a hitch.

But from a purely fundraising standpoint, is all this energy well spent?

I’ve been reading Situations Matter by Sam Sommers, and one of the studies he cited jumped out at me:

smaller-crowd-rdc-color-mdIn one creative set of studies, researchers instructed participants to visualize themselves in a crowded theater or out to dinner with thirty friends. After answering several unimportant questions…participants moved on to an ostensibly unrelated charity survey.

Having just pictured themselves in a crowd, respondents pledged smaller donations compared to participants who had earlier been instructed to visualize an empty theater or more intimate dinner for two.

The emphasis is, of course, mine. But it seemed important enough to call out on my blog.

Big events can be fun. The wining and dining, the camaraderie and kinship, the fancy clothes and entertaining speeches by luminaries — all of that can be an intense and excellent bonding experience for your donors. They can also call attention to your cause and engage the public.

But are they really good fundraising?

If the results of that study cited in Sommers’ book hold true for your donors, events might actually reduce the amount of money your supporters are willing to give. You know that you’ll get more from a one-on-one conversation. But might you also raise more money simply by catching your donors alone at home?

It’s definitely worth considering.

Oct 212013
 

freeGiftThe last Direct Mail Myth I want to bust is the one that is the most true: Premiums always boost response. Of course, nothing is guaranteed, but adding a premium to an acquisition package very often will boost your response rate. And while I have less experience with premiums in house mail, it’s certainly true that a well-chosen premium can increase both your average gift and your percent response.

But premiums in direct mail come with a host of complex issues, and the truth is they don’t always work.

Here are three things to consider when you’re looking at premiums:

How much do they cost? And I’m not just talking about the cost of the actual premium. What will your costs be to fulfill the premium? If it’s an up-front gift — a magnet, notecards or address labels, say — will the added weight up your postage, or will the item itself distract from the real purpose of your package, which is, of course, to get a gift? If the premium is something you’re sending out once people donate, how much will it cost to mail it to them? Some seemingly cheap premiums have hidden shipping costs that make the item prohibitive.

Is the added cost worth it? If you get a boost in response — either in larger average gifts, or more donors — you need to do the work to see if that pencils out against the cost of the premium and fulfillment. And how do those donors renew? Are they joining just to get the premium, then dropping like flies? Or are they sticking around, ensuring that the added costs are made up by their years of giving?

– And most importantly: How does the premium fit with your mission? An environmental organization that sends address labels may acquire more donors, but that extra paper is sending a subtle, unintended message that they may not be quite as green as they claim. On the other hand, an environmental that promises a tote bag is putting their money where their mouth is — and getting more effective advertising when donors carry the bags in public. Carefully consider what your chosen premium says about your organization: is that a message you want to send to your potential donors?

To me the biggest question to ask yourself about premiums, encompassing all the things I discussed above, is this: Do you want donors who support you because you shower them with gifts, or because they believe in the importance of your mission?

Oct 142013
 
Smaller donors can work as a team to support your efforts

Smaller donors can work as a team to support your efforts

I’ve worked with many organizations whose development directors desperately wanted to move them toward a more member-supported structure, rather than relying exclusively on grants, foundations or one or two heavy-hitter donors. And one of the biggest stumbling blocks they’ve faced has been trying to convince reluctant board members and executives that $25 direct mail donors are worth pursuing.

It’s one of the most persistent myths of direct mail: that the “small-time” donors will never amount to anything significant for the organization.

Direct Mail Donors Have Hidden Depths

Sure, they may start out giving only $25, but treat your donors right, and they may just grow with you. Many of the largest organizations’ major donor lists are made up primarily of people who started out giving small amounts — people who tested out the organization with a $25 or $50 gift, then gradually gave more as they liked what they saw.

And who hasn’t heard a story about a nonprofit receiving a massive bequest from a donor who’d never given more than $30 a year while alive?

When you show your donors you know who they are, you appreciate your support, and you’re using their money wisely, they reward you by continuing to give — and perhaps even increasing their donations.

Direct Mail is a Volume Business

One $25 donor might not ever give you the same amount as one good foundation grant. But many $25 dollar donors will. And not only that, these are the people who can create a groundswell of support for your cause, who will tell their friends and family and neighbors about the good work you do, and who will — if taken care of properly — be your most loyal and vocal public advocates.

Of course, that means you must invest in your outreach to these “small-time” donors so you can collect and retain a large enough number of them to support your work.

Embrace Your Smaller Donors — and Bust Those Myths!

For more busted direct mail myths, check out my earlier posts here and here. And stop back next week when I bust the 5th and final direct mail myth!